“Vouchers” can help revive Catholic schools in Florida, beyond

After reading story after story about Catholic schools closing, it was heartening this morning to instead read about an aggressive local effort to help them rebound. The Diocese of St. Petersburg, in the Tampa Bay region of Florida, has launched an ambitious plan to reverse declining enrollment and ensure that Catholic schools remain a solid part of the community bedrock that they have been for generations.

As detailed in today’s Tampa Bay Times, the effort aims to make school operations more efficient and academic offerings more rigorous. It includes a key partnership with Notre Dame University’s Ace Academies, which will help with the quality piece. And it involves increased use of Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, which gives low-income families more learning options for their kids. “It’s a reimagining of how our schools would look like in five to 10 years from now, to make them viable,” Alberto Vazquez-Matos, the diocese’s superintendent, told the Times.

In this podcast interview with redefinED in March, Christian Dallavis, director of the ACE Academies, put the Tampa Bay partnership in context. He noted Hispanics in the U.S. make up two thirds of practicing Catholics under the age of 35, and that the high school graduation rate for Hispanics is about 50 percent. “We see the future of the church is on pace to be kind of radically undereducated,” he said. But “we also have a solution in that we know Catholic schools often put kids on a path to college in ways that they don’t have other opportunities to do so.”

The success of Hispanic students is especially important in Florida, where Hispanics could be a majority in a few decades. Boosting Catholic schools with innovative partnerships and school choice programs is a bold response that offers hope for the future.

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at rmatus@stepupforstudents.org or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at facebook.com/redefinedonline.